Monday, February 16, 2009

Rene Marie - Voice of My Beautiful Country

Many of you have probably heard of Rene Marie, whether you remember it or not. Jazz fans may know her from several recordings she did for the MAXJAZZ label. But beyond the jazz world, she had her additional "fifteen minutes of fame" in the United States at large last year when she sang at the Denver State of the City address. She had been invited to sing the national anthem, but she chose to use her own arrangement of the song in which she superimposed the words of the patriotic spiritual Lift Every Voice And Sing over the melody to The Star-Spangled Banner. That caused quite a stir and was a hot topic for a while on talk radio and political commentary nationwide, as some people took great offense at this.

Before I go any further, I should disclose that I know Rene and consider her a friend. Not so close that I think I can speak for her, nor so close that I imagine she would particularly care what I think. But close enough to be confident that she would encourage me to be honest just as I believe she has been.

If you're looking for insight into why Rene made the choice she did, you can read the statement she released on her web site some time ago. Frankly, the State of the City story is old news. What I really want to share is my reaction on hearing the piece - and the whole three-movement suite of which it is a part - performed in full last week at an event honoring the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. However, to the extent my feelings were informed by the events of last year, and since the story from my perspective does start with the State of the City address last year, I'll begin by saying a few words about the earlier event.

I was not present at the State of the City address, but like most people in Denver, and many around the country, I heard about it after the fact. My feelings at the time were probably what a lot of people thought: that it was an a very odd thing to choose to do, but also not worth getting as worked up over as some people were getting. I mean, on one hand, she was asked (albeit apparently not being paid) to sing a song, and she responded by singing a somewhat different one: same melody, but different lyrics. A questionable choice, to be sure. On the other hand, consider that a good number of performances of the national anthem have no lyrics at all (eg, every time it was played at an Olympic award ceremony last year). So it can hardly be claimed that omitting the original lyrics was a travesty in itself. Furthermore, the lyrics she used instead can not reasonably be said to be inappropriate for a civic function:
Lift every voice and sing,
'Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on 'til victory is won.

Liberty, rejoicing, faith, hope, victory - these are the themse of practically every patriotic song ever written, including The Star-Spangled Banner. It is not like Rene was singing "kill whitey" or "death to the infidels" or any such nonsense, as one might have surmised from the vehemence of the reaction by some against her.

To the extent that there was anything wrong with her choice, it really just had to do with the idea of meeting expectations - and expectations that have particular meaning to a lot of people. Now, as a jazz musician myself, I know that the notion of surprise is one of the defining elements of the genre. It is the basis for the appeal of improvisation. I would hate to be called to task every time I have substituted a Db7 chord for a Gmi7. On the other hand, I don't need to be told that there are certain liberties one might be "expected" to take, and others one might not be. As far as I could see, Rene may have crossed a line, but it was hardly a line between black and white (in any sense of the words), nor did she cross it very far, and I don't really see why people took so much offense.

Even among people who were trying to be civilized in their criticism, I thought one comment in particular was off-base: the comparison to a house painter being hired to paint your house green but responding by painting it red instead. There are two major flaws in that analogy. One is that no money was involved. And the other is that if someone paints tyour house, that is something you have to see every day until you pay someone to paint it again. There were - or should have been, I thought - no similarly lingering effects from a song. No money wasted, no real harm done.

As far as I was concerned, that was all there was to the story, until I heard Rene speak about it last week at the Lincoln's birthday celebration and then perform the full suite of which her arrangement of Lift Every Voice And Sing / The Star-Spangled Banner was a part. The event was held at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral in Denver, and it featured Dr. Vincent Harding, an associate of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., moderating a "dialog on race and the future of America." If you do read the statement on Rene Marie's site, you'll have a pretty good idea of what she said last week, but her remarks in person went a bit further in explaining the background behind how she came to write the suite. At the risk of perhaps getting some minor details wrong, I will try to summarize her story, while relating it to my own experience.

Rene began by talking about being in Russia on a concert a few years ago. A reporter who was interviewing her referred to her an American, and that took her aback slightly. She sad that this got her thinking about why she felt that way, because it was not that she was not American, or that she was ashamed of being an American. As she shared her own thoughts on this, my mind turned its attention to my own feelings.

My sense is that one identifies oneself in various different ways, but any time one belongs to an minority group, that identify is often stronger than others. For instance, I am a visual artist. Right now, I paint mostly in oils, but I do not necessarily identify with other oil painters specifically. However, when I was primarily a pastelist, I identified with other pastelists to a much greater extent. I joined the Pastel Society of Colorado, entered pastel-only competitions and exhibitions, and so forth. I think this is because oil is one of the dominant mediums in the world of visual art, where pastel is definitely a "minority." Or, as another example, I am a photographer, and as such have a certain connection to other photographers, but I feel that connection much more strongly among that minority of my fellow photographers who shoot with Pentax gear. I do not sense the same type of camaraderie among the people I know who shoot Canon or Nikon, and I think that is because they dominate the market and Pentax is little guy in comparison. I also suspect the jazz community of which I am a part is more tightly knit than, say, the pop/rock community.

Being a pastelist in a world of mostly oil painters, or a Pentax shooter in a world of mostly Canon/Nikon shooters, or jazz musicians in a world of mostly pop/rock musicians, gives me a certain sense of identity. As a white person living in America, I can't say I feel any special identity that is associated with being white or with being American. My sense of identify as a pastelist or Pentaxian or jazz musician is far stronger than my identity as a white person or as an American. If I were black, I could see that part of my identity being correspondingly stronger. But white or black, I would be surprised if an interviewer here in America referred to me as an "American," as if that were a significant part of my identity here. After all, virtually everyone I encounter in my daily life is an American too. You might as well refer to me as a ten-fingered person. And merely visiting another country does not change my self-identity. Regardless of where I am located at the moment, my identity as a pastelist or Pentaxian or jazz musician would seem more significant to me than my identity as an American.

Now, none of this is what Rene Marie was talking about. It is how I related to what she was talking about. What she was talking about was not just the irrelevance of her identity as an American, but also how it seemed somehow in contradiction with other aspects of her identity (not that she put it in those terms), even though of course she is an American. But like all black Americans, she has had to reconcile her identity as "black" with the reality of living in a country in which her ancestors were enslaved because of that identify, in which her parents were not allowed to eat at certain lunch counters or attend certain schools because of that identity. It is possible to be American and to love America even while living with that contradiction, and that is what she spoke about.

As she related, she grew up singing both "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and enjoying both. But the former was specifically about a war that was fought at a time when her ancestors were still slaves; it was about a flag that flew over buildings that her ancestors were not allowed to enter. As such, what I think I heard her saying was that it was harder to relate to as a child, even though she enjoyed singing it and loved what the country had become since then. "Lift Every Voice and Sing," however, resonated more strongly with her from the beginning, speaking as it does about the ideals of the faith and liberty.

It was thoughts on these topics - even if I have taken the liberty of personalizing some of those thoughts - that prompted Rene to want to write a suite of patriotic music that reconciled her identity as "black" with her identity as an American. So she took the lyrics to two patriotic songs - "America the Beautiful" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and set them to her own melodies. The music, I think, came from her identity as a black person and from her Christian upbringing; they are essentially gospel melodies and harmonies. I think that fusing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" would have been a similar reconciliation of these two identities that are, of course, not actually in contradiction at all.

With all these ideas floating in my head, and the spectacular surroundings of the cathedral itself, it was a sublime setting to listen to the music. Of course, everyone present knew enough of the backstory that there was no question as to the appropriateness of this arrangement in this situation. And the musicians accompanying Rene - Jeff Jenkins on piano, Mark Simon on bass, and Paul Romaine on drums - are among the top players in Denver (which is saying a lot).

I have heard Rene perform in other venues and know her to be a world-class musician, but the impact of this performance was on another plane entirely. It was inspiring, uplifting, healing, mesmerizing, exciting, creative, and beautiful all at once. I think it safe to say that it would have been difficult for anyone - even her critics - not to have come away stunned in the most positive sense of the word. I don't know if she recorded this performance or not, but you can hear a studio version on her site.